Laudable Listening

Posted by: Shel 25 Comments

Jack WebbPart of my job is interviewing people – clients, witnesses, experts, children. In an attempt to move the conversation along to the part where I can be helpful, I am often tempted to go all Jack Webb on people  (just the facts, ma’am, just the facts). But I have learned hurrying people along, rushing their story, often results in losing details that can be helpful in understanding someone’s position or situation. Listening is more than not interrupting.

Most of us are not born ‘good listeners’ – it’s hard to really listen when planning a response. But good listening is a skill that can be honed and it’s worth the effort to cultivate it. Here are a few ways to get closer to laudable listening.

1. Lean in. There’s more of your body involved in listening than just your ears. When sitting, lean slightly toward the speaker. Make eye contact (but not in a zombie-like unblinking stare). Let your face register interest (yes, it’s a choice).

2. Don’t tell someone how they feel. Ask questions. For instance, saying: “You must be scared” puts one in a position of adopting the sentiment, agreeing politely whether its accurate or not, or arguing with you (as in: “No, I wasn’t scared, I was . . .)to express how they really feel. The better approach is a question such as: “Are you scared?” or “How do you feel?”

3. Avoid the mirror language. Using the phrase “what I hear you saying is . . . ” prior to restating what was just said is, in my opinion, overrated. I recognize there can be a use for it, especially in therapeutic relationships. But it can also come across as condescending. A more authentic interaction is to ask clarifying questions or ask up front: “Do you mind if I state back what I think your position is to make sure I’m on the same page?”

4. Give the speaker affirmations. Nodding at appropriate places or saying things like: “uh-huh” or “yes” to indicate understanding reinforce the speaker’s perception of being heard.

5. Using these tips in reverse. An effective listening skill is not listening sometimes. When one is trying to foist gossip, mean-spirited comments, or negativity on you, shaking the head, saying “uh-uh” and leaning back can shut it down as effectively as an unnecessary rude response. If you are compassionate and do listening well, you can be a target for self-centered  types who verbally dump on you or ramble on with total disregard for your time (not to mention level of interest). This is the time to break the “don’t interrupt” rule in order to tell them you need to move on. It can be your way of helping them hone their own listening skills.


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  • Great words of wisdom, Shel. I’m a GriefShare facilitator and can testify that everything you said is absolutely spot on. Dealing with folks going through grief that flows like a tsunami over their lives, the best thing one can do is be quiet and listen. If they don’t to talk, sit quietly with them. And give them hugs. There is nothing you can say that will change their grief. But they want and need the comfort of your presence.


    • Shel Harrington

      Well said, DiAne. It’s amazing how many aspects of grief – and the helpful care for it – apply to someone who is going through/has gone through divorce. Some years back a therapist I’ve quoted a few times in posts (Charlotte Lankard) started a facility for children dealing with the loss of a parent called “Calm Waters.” It’s sounds similar to the program you work with. They eventually expanded the program to include children whose parents are going through divorce, recognizing that the losses are processed – and grieved – in much the same way. It’s a resource I highly value. God bless your continued participation in GreifShare – I’m sure it has been a blessing for many.

  • Excellent advice, Shel! Thanks for the great post. I can always improve my listening skills.

    • Shel Harrington

      You and me both, Peggi! You’d think the more you do it the better you get – and I guess there has been some improvement – but also the more I do it the more aware I am of how often I could do it better!

  • Beth

    Love this Shel….we need to try this last comment at our SS time. I agree with being a good listener is sooooo important in today’s world.

    • Shel Harrington

      That would be a great place to try it out, Beth – might even revert to the obnoxious “What I hear you saying is . . . ” for entertainment value!

  • Top rule for me is “don’t tell someone how they feel.” Yep, that’s one of my pet peeves to have someone tell me how I feel or that I shouldn’t feel the way I do. Grrr … don’t even get me started on this topic. I could get fierce. 🙂 Love the cartoon!

    • Shel Harrington

      Yah – being told how I feel is right up there with being told to ‘calm down’ – not going to get someone the results they’re looking for!

  • Gina Kishur

    Yes! I’ve always thought that mirror image thing was stupid and irritating.

    • Shel Harrington

      I feel totally validated hearing this from a therapist, Gina! Clearly we are not the only ones irritated by this. So why is it still touted?? (They should’ve asked us!)

      • Lindsey Vanhooser

        And Shel, I am fairly certain I would enjoy it if you ran the world! Your honesty, communicated through your amazing sense of humor would distract most people long enough for them to get over the “emergency drama” and solve the problem like adults! 🙂

        • Shel Harrington

          Lindsey, that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me – thank you! However, after more than 20 years of litigating family law issues, I bet there are a slew of people (opponents? my cients’ exes?) who would beg to differ!

    • Lindsey Vanhooser

      That is so funny you responded Gina, because I just LITERALLY thought, I would LOVE to hear what Gina thinks about this!! You are the only therapist that I know who will say something like that when it is true! Most therapists would give mumbo jumbo about how it serves its purpose, blah blah… which I am sure is true in very specific circumstances. Your honesty which is backed by credibility from your extensive experience is one of the wonderful characteristics about you that I cherish!

  • Excellent tips, Shel. It takes practice to be a good listener, and even experienced good listeners can forget to pay attention. I agree with #3, and I need to practice #5! 🙂

    • Shel Harrington

      I’ve got plenty of tips to go with number 5!! But some of them cross over into the ‘unnecessarily rude’ category.

  • Your previous post made me wonder about what to do with people who’ve never learned the art of conversation and don’t pause in their monologue long enough to even draw breath. You cleared that up today in #5. Thanks!

    • Shel Harrington

      Sometimes it’s just our job to assist others in learning!

  • Great list, Shel. Being a good listener requires effort, unfortunately some people don’t know how to put down their iPhones to listen.

    • Shel Harrington

      I think you’re right, Jill, about listening requiring effort. It’s so easy in our multi-tasking world shift focus as often as we shift tasks.

  • Oh how you have mastered interpersonal communication skills, my friend. Get better results every time if you understand what the person is really saying and what their own personal perspective is.

    • Shel Harrington

      Isn’t it amazing how our own assumptions can create the very miscommunication that frustrates us?!

  • These are all great listener skills. I think good listeners know these instinctively and other people ought to take lessons from you, Shel. As far as #3 goes, wow, thank you for saying what I’ve thought myself!

    • Shel Harrington

      Apparently we’re not alone in that, Luanne! When someone uses that line on me it’s all I can do not to say something snarky like: “Of course that’s what you heard – it’s what I just said.” Chances are good my eye-rolling conveys the same message.

      • Lindsey Vanhooser

        oh Shel!
        Hahaha! I would so love to use that line sometime! “of course that’s what you heard- it’s what I said”. The response from the “supposed” good listener would be hilarious!! If you ever do that, please, please, please do it in front of me! Haha!!!

        • Shel Harrington

          Next time we’re talking, tell me what you heard me saying – we’ll practice the line!

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